Forest bathing has many health benefits

Forest Bathing: A Natural Way to Boost Your Mood

By: Sarah Walker, Ph.D.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

What kind of mood are you in right now? The most common complaint I hear is that it is hard to slow down mentally and physically—and that can make you feel unhappy, unfocused and exhausted. One exercise I do with my clients when they sit in my office is to travel in their minds to a calm or peaceful place. Most often, the places that people think about are in nature.

Spending time in the natural world is even better in person. The practice of forest bathing (shinrin yoku) has a number of health benefits for both mind and body, including promoting relaxation, healthy mood and stress management, and much more.

So, kick off your shoes and open your senses as we explore what forest bathing can do for you.

What is forest bathing?

Shinrin yoku, a Japanese phrase translated as forest bathing, simply means taking in the forest atmosphere by soaking it in, whether you are sitting still or moving among the trees. It is a form of ecotherapy that was initially termed and practiced in Japan about 40 years ago, although many cultures have long valued being in nature as essential to human health.

Forest bathing has been described as both a Zen practice and a fitness trend. It calls for the presence of body and mind to bridge the space between us and the natural world, helping us to manage stress and feel happier and healthier.

How do you forest bathe?

First and foremost, you do not need to be a wilderness survivalist or nature lover to practice this form of forest therapy. City dwellers can practice forest bathing simply by finding any form of natural environment (such as trees, plants, water, and rocks) to immerse yourself in and be present, connecting with what you see, feel, hear, smell and taste. If that feels daunting to you, there are guided experiences and ecotherapy excursions for forest walking.

But this form of forest therapy is easy to do on your own.

  • Find a spot. This can be anywhere in the world where there are trees. You can go to a park, the woods, a river or even in your own backyard. You can forest bathe in rain or shine, when cold or hot. Personally, I love my garden.
  • Leave the phone and camera out of this. You are forming a connection between yourself and nature—and you do not need a device to do that. (I know what you are thinking: "I cannot leave my phone behind!" The fact that you feel so panicked at this thought is an indication this is exactly what your nervous system needs. You may struggle with this, but it is worth it. I promise.)
  • Slow down. Walk slowly with no destination or intention but to let your body guide you.
  • Take deep belly breaths. Lengthen the duration of the inhale, then allow the exhale to last even longer for deeper relaxation.
  • Choose to stop or move, to sit or stand. Listen to where your feet want to take you. Follow your nose. Stay still if that is what your body wants. Feast on the dance of the light through the leaves, the feel of the wind on your cheeks or in your hair, and the song of water or birds or other natural sounds.

Remember, you can do this on your own or as a guided experience. Forest bathing is suitable for all fitness levels. Some activities you can do along with forest therapy include hiking, yoga, meditation, breathwork, bird watching, having a picnic, and making art, to name a few.

The benefit of this practice is that you can make it work for you and your life. If any of these ideas sound interesting or fun, go for it. If some sound absolutely horrible, that is good news, too. You know what you do not want. Find a different direction that works for you.

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What are the benefits of forest bathing?

Forest bathing has many health benefits, for both physical and mental health. Researchers have studied a variety of forest bathing practices—ranging from 15 minutes of silent standing to multi-day experiments involving sitting, walking, and unsupervised free time in forest settings—with beneficial results.

1. Stress management and mood health

Studies show forest bathing and spending time in forest settings helps to maintain healthy levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and encourages mood health. This is true whether we exercise in the woods or look at trees while sitting. A review of forest bathing studies found that this practice supports mood and mental health for participants.

2. Healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular health

Forest bathing has shown support for heart health and healthy blood pressure and cardiovascular function. Especially when combined with the MIND diet, forest bathing was found to encourage cardiac well-being and mental health in a study.

3. Immune system support

A common afternoon pick-me-up is to go outside and breathe fresh air. This can be re-energizing because fresh air often contains phytoncides, which are the oils emitted by plants to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have been found to support immune system function. Forest bathing has been found to have similar support for immune function.

4. Protection from oxidative stress

A study involving repeated forest bathing showed that forest therapy can help protect your body from oxidative stress, much like other powerful green antioxidants, like L-theanine, a compound found in green tea.

5. Connection with nature

Spending time in forests helps us to connect with our local ecosystems and encourages conservation. We benefit from nature just by walking outside and being in it. If we want to keep benefitting from and enjoying all that forest bathing has to offer, we need to take care of the forest environment.

How often should I forest bathe?

You don't need to wait for an invitation to begin forest bathing. Begin with whatever amount of time works for you and your schedule. Make your forest bath comfortable for you, like Goldilocks, who wanted everything not too hot or too cold, and not too long or too short.

The forest atmosphere can benefit your mental health and physical health, as well as support healthy levels of cortisol and healthy stress management. Research shows many forms of forest bathing are effective, so do what you can, when you can, to help yourself relax and encourage a healthy response to stress.

What other nutrients support stress management?

Forest bathing can be one component of a healthy lifestyle, helping you to stay active and connecting you with nature. Healthy stress management can also be supported by getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and consuming supplemental nutrition, like ashwagandha, magnesium, lemon balm and L-theanine. These nutrients help support calm and focus, relaxation and other full-body benefits.

If you want to encourage a healthy mood and stress management, supplements may help. Take our health needs quiz to get a personalized recommendation for brain and body health nutrients that fit your needs.

About the Author: Sarah A. Walker, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist, an artist, a certified hypnotherapist, an EMDR therapist and a registered yoga teacher. As a lifelong learner and a creative, she brings these skill sets to her specialties and expertise. She integrates creative endeavors as part of the whole mind-body innovative approach to mental health and total well-being.

Website: www.secondfloorsanctuary.com/

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